Stanford believes it's primed to stay on top

David Shaw gets the same question in a variety of forms: Can Stanford remain a top-tier team once projected No. 1 pick Andrew Luck is long gone for the NFL?

Shaw is optimistic he can keep a good thing going when many figure the Cardinal will be down on their Luck.

But the ever-positive Luck doesn't foresee a drop-off for the No. 4 Cardinal (11-1).

Shaw considers Monday's Fiesta Bowl date with third-ranked Oklahoma State (11-1) not as the program's last hurrah but rather just another great opportunity to build the Stanford name.

"I like to think in terms of eras, and hopefully our era doesn't come to an end with Andrew leaving," Shaw said last week before the team headed to the desert to prepare. "I kind of like the high expectations, because it shows us that we've earned the right to be where we are. Then you've got to play up to it."

Shaw, one of two first-time coaches in BCS bowl games along with West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen, believes the top players now want to play on The Farm. Heisman Trophy runner-up Luck helped establish that reputation for the school.

"I've searched, and I can't find another team that's ended back-to-back years in the top five in football and the top five in education," Shaw said. "It doesn't happen very often anymore."

He points to when do-everything running back Toby Gerhart departed for the pros two years ago and the chatter then about how could the Cardinal possibly succeed without him.

"Good teams always handle that," Shaw said. "Everybody wondered how good we'd be after we lost Toby Gerhart. Everybody wondered how it'd be with three new starters this year on the offensive line. And everybody's going to wonder how good we're going to be without Andrew next year. And that's good."

Having played at Stanford — where his father also worked as an assistant — Shaw gets what it takes to thrive, the demands of balancing the academic standards and football. Athletic director Bob Bowlsby promoted Shaw from offensive coordinator to replace Jim Harbaugh last January.

Bowlsby is optimistic, while also realistic about losing Luck, about the direction of the program looking ahead to 2012 and beyond.

"There is no question that it is very difficult to improve at the same time a team is losing a great player like Andrew Luck," Bowlsby said. "Additionally, Andrew would be the first to assert that he plays with many other special players, some of whom will be graduating and moving on to the NFL. Our staff has done a very good job recruiting, and we have the best depth in many years with a very strong recruiting class coming in. When all of that is combined with excellent sport performance, sports medicine programs, and a proven coaching staff, we have every reason to be excited about the future."

When Shaw arrived in Arizona on Monday, he referenced his dad, Willie, and his experiences at the Fiesta Bowl.

"It means a lot," he said. "I had so many memories as soon as I heard that we were going to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. My dad coached in the 1982-83 seasons. Those were big games and exciting games, and hopefully we can do the same here. The good thing is he won that game also, and hopefully we get a chance to win this one."

Shaw earned his first big victory the moment Luck decided to stay for one more college season — despite Harbaugh bolting to coach the San Francisco 49ers. Shaw's first year running the show received an instant adrenaline shot.

He believes it could happen again, not necessarily with a player of Luck's magnitude but by finding a core of new stars to start fresh in 2012.

"For us, it's retooling," Shaw said. "We're recruiting very well. I think we're going to have some great speed coming in this year. ... We might look a little different, but we expect to be competitive from here on out."

Stanford will turn to QB-in-waiting Brett Nottingham, running back Stepfan Taylor, its talented tight ends and — the Cardinal hope — a healthy Shayne Skov at linebacker to carry on.

Although their national title hopes were dashed weeks ago, leaving one last mark with another monumental win would mean so much. Stanford could match its 12-1 record from a year ago, capped by a 40-12 victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. That helped the Cardinal finish fourth in the final AP poll, the school's best ranking since the unbeaten 1940 team finished No. 2.

By the end of the week after last season's bowl win, Harbaugh was gone. Soon, it will be Luck walking away from campus to begin his NFL preparations.

He can leave with the comfort of knowing his teammates are in good hands.

"I think we've had very good recruiting classes come in, probably better than us," Luck said. "I guess we'll see. I know they've had higher ratings and grades and all those things. Hopefully we've been able to bring in good guys, and hopefully the legacy will continue long after we're gone."